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Arthur Russell - Article from Faith Magazine
Maybe it's the millennium, or that dreaded post-modernism those "Late Show" types witter on about in the small hours, but in the last two decades music has been looking back to the past for it's inspiration, especially to music that perhaps didn't get the recognition it deserved first time around. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ever changing world of dance music. Whether it's Hip-Hop, it's face pointed reverentially to the Old School, or House stealing Disco riffs by the truck load, people are increasingly intrigued by back-in-the-day. And common to both the aforementioned scenes and much more is one person - Arthur Russell, a man some regard as the best songwriter of the 20th century.
He was born Charles Arthur Russell in 1952, in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Although like many of us, he went through phases of hobbies such as astronomy or aquariums (!) music was the thing that maintained his interest. He started to learn piano and developed an incredibly strong ear which enabled him to play a tune after hearing it just once. When an opportunity came to join the orchestra at school, he decided to take up what had been his mother's instrument, the cello. He would become inextricably linked with this instrument and would ultimately push to it's very limits. Avant-garde composer Philip Glass would later comment on his style "This was a guy who could sit down with a cello and sing with it in a way that no one on this earth has ever done before, or will do again."
After high school he left for San Francisco in the 1970's, and joined a Buddhist commune, where he would practice for hours. He left after it was decided that they would all pool their possessions, but Arthur was simply not able to give up his cello! After formal music studies at the San Francisco Conservatory and Ali Akbar Khan school, where he studied Eastern music forms he moved to New York, where he would pursue his career in experimental/classical styles as well as further study at the Manhattan School of Music.
He also started to hang out at clubs like David Mancuso's Loft and Nicky Siano's Gallery, and it was this contact with the club scene that would see Arthur add some different elements to his work. He met DJ Steve D'Aquisto at the Gallery in 1977, a friendship that would culminate in the now infamous Loose Joints, more of which later.
Around this time he also formed a group called the Flying Hearts which were recorded by celebrated producer John Hammond. Contributing to these sessions were David Byrne and Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, a band Arthur very nearly joined himself. Indeed, Byrne happily admits that it was Arthur's odd horn arrangements for a couple of the Heads tracks that caused him to rethink his musical approach.
Arthur's first "dance" record was "Kiss Me Again" recorded in 1978 for Sire using the monicker Dinosaur. He co-produced it with Nicky Siano, with David Byrne adding some enjoyable guitar licks. Steve D'Aquisto remembers hearing the original version on a tape.
"Arthur would give me tapes, pieces of "Kiss Me Again". I went to Studio 54, and it was like 10.30 in the evening, there were just a few people in the place. I said to the DJ, a friend, "Would you play this, I think it's just fabulous" and they played this 12 minute tape of "Kiss Me Again" and the place flipped and danced for the entire bit."
Steve was starting to get more production work and it was his and Walter Gibbons' remix of a track by Sandy Mercer called "Play With Me" that impressed Arthur, who suggested they should perhaps record together. Whilst on the way to a studio he was working at Steve had the lyrics that would become "Is It All Over My Face" come into his head. He tried to convince the people who he was working with to do a song featuring these words but they were uninterested. Curiously a song by Marlena Shaw surfaced from the same studio with spookily similar lyrics sometime later! Unfazed, Steve told Arthur about his idea for a track about "love dancing". Arthur came back with a song which he played on the guitar for Steve in the back room of the Loft.
After hearing Arthur strum the basics of "Is It All Over My Face" and "Tell You Today", Steve persuaded West End owner Mel Cheren to help fund some recording sessions to the tune of $10,000. The vocalists for these sessions were also culled from the Loft's packed dancefloor, Melvina Woods, Robert Green and Leon McElroy.
"We thought we were making "The White Album"! We cut 14 reels of 24 track tape! We just did song after song and songs became other songs. We had nine people live in the studio for the basic tracks and in the second session we had thirteen people. The tapes flowed continuously. Some of our takes are on two reels. There were two 24 track machines and when one was coming to the end I said to Bob Blank (the engineer) "Put another reel on and we'll edit it together."
"Pop Your Funk" (another Loose Joints classic) was from a second take of "Is it all Over My Face".
"There was a 32 bar section of the beat that was just superb! Arthur says "We need another 24 track machine." So we started copying the 32 bars, then 2 bar, 4 bar 8 bar etc.. pieces, and then we intercut them. It was almost like we threw the tape up in the air, then when it landed we picked up pieces and then put them together because it was just a beat. Then we overlaid percussion and vocal tracks; we were just experimenting. There was this big gong in the studio, which is that big ambient noise you hear throughout the whole thing. We kept hitting it over and over again. We had a microphone out the window so it's mixed with traffic noise! We were just seizing every moment. There was no forethought about what we were going to do. About 12 seconds of rehearsal and we just went right into recording. We spent every penny on recording and made all these records and then Mel didn't want to release them."
Cheren was unimpressed with their experimental efforts and dispatched Larry Levan to remix "Is It All Over My Face", which he did using a female vocal he found on one of the other tracks of the tape. This was released in 1980 with the male vocal on the flip side and was such a success that it pretty much saved West End from bankruptcy. The male version was additionally released separately alongside the disturbing "Pop Your Funk". There is also a rare 7" of this, which is apparently even more deranged!
D'Aquisto maintains that other than the advance he has never received one royalty statement or dollar from the proceeds of "Is It All Over..." despite it being reissued on several occasions. The majority of this material has never seen the light of day, except "Tell You Today", which was released by Island on their new "4th and Broadway" imprint in 1983.
The following year Arthur set up Sleeping Bag Records with Will Socolov. The first release was the album "24-24 Music" as Dinosaur L. If you're wondering about the name it would appear Arthur would often use the names of extinct or near-extinct animals. On one production credit he's "Killer Whale, whilst the logo for Sleeping Bag is a Koala bear! Will remembers how they came up with the name for their label.
"We were joking about names, and James Brown was on with "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" and I was sleeping in a sleeping bag in my apartment and I kind of made a joke about that, and Arthur said that was a great idea for the name of the company!"
The line up was pretty much the same as the Loose Joints sessions, (which boasted the Ingram Brothers rhythm section) and a similar stream-of-conscience approach was taken with the recording itself. Russell arranged the beats so there'd be a change every 24 bars (hence the title) and the band would have to improvise the songs over the top. He also made sure he went into the studio when there was a full moon! The album is again very experimental, and makes occasional uneasy listening but the same magic is very much in evidence.
"Arthur's music is really avant-garde", states Will "and here is a very traditional Philadelphia/R&B family which he had to cajole into doing this stuff. He told me that Butch (Ingram) would look at him like "You're out of your fucking mind!", but the younger ones Timmy and Johnny Ingram would really get into it, just grooving with Arthur!"
Arthur would continue to be involved in production and mixing duties for the label, but parted company with Socolov in 1985. 1981 also saw the release of a slightly more conventional LP the Bob Blank produced "Big Sky" as part of a band, The Necessaries. Arthur continued with his classical output as well and in 1983 the meditative "Tower of Meaning" came out, with "Instrumentals" following in 1984. He regularly performed live at places like the Kitchen and Walker Arts Centre. He'd play solo with his cello and an array of sound effects, or with a small ensemble. Although he would work at blending his voice with the cello, these recordings give more focus to his lyrics. Arthur wrote hundreds of songs, mostly unreleased and often deeply personal. Although better known for the "disco" experiments described above, the main body of his work would appear to be simple songs that would also draw on his Buddhist beliefs.
Andy Williams, of London outfit Fuzz Against Junk has been profoundly influenced by Russell's music writing, which shows his ideas are touching new musicians even now.
"I've never seen lyrics like that, because they're very simple, but if you listen he's not saying what's just in the sentence, he's also saying something totally different. Alot of the phrases are often repeated, but there are also some otherworldly thoughts that you can't quite decipher. For me he's the best song writer of the last century, no-one wrote like he did, and he also apparently wanted to be a pop star. His destiny was to be in the charts, and everyone told him it was a crazy idea, but this was what he was trying to do. His influence and diversity of what he was trying to achieve was beyond anyone like the Beatles or anyone else because if you listen to it now this music was the past, the present, the future."
David Byrne commented in an interview that he would oscillate between the avant-garde and his desire to be a pop star in the mould of Abba, whilst neighbour Allen Ginsberg, who he'd occasionally perform with said "He kept saying he wanted to write Buddhist bubble-gum music!"
Tom Lee, Arthur's partner since 1980 describes how he discovered tapes of Arthur's songs scattered round his flat.
"I would dig around the apartment and find these cassettes of beautiful pop/folk tunes that he had done years earlier. He always did work in so many genres at once. He would cross some of them over with each other. He was always in search of the dance music secret....ie., creating the new sound, but not mimicking what was already done. He also would get himself lost in the realm of the solo cello and vocal material as well. One of the things I like about Arthur's songs is that you really do have to listen to some of the poetry of the lyrics. It can be so simple, but I often sense a gentle, seizing of a moment in time in them as well. An example of this is in the song "Arm Around You", (not yet released) the song begins and continues with an oft repeated phrase: "I'm sad and I can't talk about it/All alone and right next to you....."Got to put my arm around you....just once.....I'm really ready...." along with more various lyrics throughout the song that eventually lead up to this one simple statement: "Got to put my arm around you.....I'll touch the other side of your face." What a tender, simple, gesture...."I'll touch the other side of your face."
Steve D'Aquisto has similar feelings about Russell's songwriting ability. "It's really Zen, it's Buddhism you see. It was all about symbolism in the higher sense. ( Tell You Today) is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. You could sing it over and over 1000 times and it'll never bore you and that was Arthur Russell. It was all these little tuneful messages that can be sung in any different number of ways but the meaning was always deep. Arthur Russell was Cole Porter and Bob Dylan and one of the great singers and writers of all times. The songs, if you listen to them now, they're as bright and as fresh as they were 20 years ago and that's what makes them so different. It's a depth of emotion, of feeling of love and warmth it's all these things."
Other dance releases came around 1985/86 in the guise of "Wax the Van" with Bob Blank's wife Lola on vocal duties "Treehouse/Schoolbell" (released on Sleeping Bag) and "Let's Go Swimming". Alternate solo versions of these tracks appeared on the ground breaking "World of Echo" also released in 1986. A thoroughly coherent piece of work, "World of Echo" is exactly what it says it is, an ethereal landscape of sound, cellos and basses cranked through effects units punctuated by Russells' singing that occasionally lurches into semi-moaning. With works like this and the dance music he made, he was taking a repetitive form, to match his words and playing in the hope of redefining what people perceived as pop music. At the time of writing it appears to be very likely that Nuphonic will be reissuing this LP, unreleased Loose Joints material and some of the songs on the huge accumulation of tapes still in Tom Lee's possession.
Arthur sadly died of AIDS in 1992 leaving behind many songs some of which were put together for the CD "Another Thought" which came out in 1995. As one obituary put it, it was though he simply vanished into his music. One thing that frustrated his collaborators was his inability to finish much of his work due to his perfectionism. A story from his childhood goes something like this. He wrote the music for a school production of "The Emperor's New Clothes". When somebody complimented him on it he is said to have replied "Just wait 'til I finish it."
For further listening music mentioned in this piece can be found on "Disco (Not Disco)" on Strut, "David Mancuso presents the Loft" vols 1 and 2 on Nuphonic and "Larry Levan's Classic West End remixes" on West End.
With special thanks to David Hill, Andy Williams, Steve D'Aquisto, Will Socolov, John Reynolds and Tom Lee for their invaluable assistance.
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